A conversation with James can typically end in, “Ok, gotta pick up some really big eye balls now.” He’s excited when he says it too and it always cracks me up. You can tell he really loves what he does. I’ll walk into the studio and while he’s draping a big monster he says to me, “Can you believe I get paid for this?!” I can’t. Although, on the other hand, I’ve seen him pull quite a few all nighters.
Oh, James is also my landlord so when I meet him for this interview I step next door to one of my favorite creative spaces. His studio. He’s busy gluing an Elvis hairdo for a Disney monster. It’s getting dark and mosquitos are on the attack so he’s moving quick.
Savita: Your studio sits overlooking Silverlake, nestled amongst lush greenery like a tree house. You live two doors down and wonder over with a cup of coffee followed by your canine companions Hedy and Joey. It’s everyone’s dream. How did you make it happen?
James: Visualization. Lots and lots of it. At one point I wanted to quit school (he went to Parsons) so a friend of my mother told me I had take this meditation course. I learned that the way you put out energy it comes back to you. See your life the way you want it to be. I realized I needed to do something I loved because when you do something you love everyone wins.
S: Did you ever want to have your own line?
J: I did until I had a conversation with Tommy Hilfiger. I was working for him and he asked me what I wanted to do with my career. I told him I want to have my own line. He said, “Be careful. I don’t see my family. I have to get up a 5am and go to the gym because I’m the public image of this company. I put in 16 hours a day and I’m always jet lagged.” Made me think. I realized the true goal is balance.
James is swatting at a mosquito.
S: Want some bug spray? Shouldn’t the glue repel them?
J: It should! It repels me! The chemicals are my least favorite part of the job.
S: So what’s your favorite part?
J: Draping. Everyone in my class hated it. They wanted to get through school, be a fashion designer and tell people what to do. They didn’t get into the three dimensional part of it. I love draping because it’s coming together in front of my eyes. For me it’s amazing. I get this weird feeling. It’s almost like being shocked electrically. The first time I felt it was while I was doing a giant owl costume. It just hit me like, wow.
S: I think I know what you mean. People search for those moments. In meditation, painting, mountain climbing. Like glimpses of enlightenment.
J: Yes! I have them when I ride my motorcycle.
S: What tool can’t you live without?
J: The tape measurer. Oh and these! Silk pins. They’re long and I have big fingers so I love them. I was just thinking today maybe I like doing this so much because I have such long limbs and it’s so easy for me to move large pieces of fabric around big dress forms.
S: I notice you can’t rely much on the computer.
J: Thank God. I like it so much better! I had an employee here last week. He looked at his iphone every six minutes. He was really into the work and then he’d get distracted. Every six minutes. I wanted to say, “If you don’t behave I’m going to take the toy away from you!” He couldn’t stop. I’d rather be obsessed with being in the moment. The phone fragments you.
S: What else is different about the way you work?
J: Usually in this business you’re doing only one thing. You just make the foot. You’re just going to make feet all day long while someone else is making the helmet all day. People are always surprised to see that we design it and make it. Jurgen and I talk about it all the time. It’s really rare. I feel so lucky. And people love it.
(Side note – Jurgen, seen in the pictures below working on the monster, works with James on almost every project. Another incredible costume maker.)
S: What’s your most memorable costume?
J: The dinosaur costume I made for halloween in 1990. I was walking around Santa Monica Blvd in it when someone from Disney saw me and said, “Holy shit! Did you make that?” I was getting tired. Everyone was jumping on me. A friend told me I should talk to him so I got his card and that’s when I started working for the TV show Dinosaurs. Three years with the prime-time show. It paid for this studio.
I realized James had just answered the first question. He manifested his dream by doing what he loves, not because he was getting paid but because it was halloween and he wanted to make an awesome costume. I point this out to him.
J: And that’s my advice to everyone. Don’t say, “I know what I want to do but it’s not practical or how will I make money?” Don’t think of all the problems and the solutions. Just simply do what you love. Do it to have a great time. Just do it.